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How to Choose the Right Dog Food: Nutrition, Labels & More!

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Dr. Paola Cuevas Photo

Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Paola Cuevas

Vet, MVZ

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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The dog food industry has changed so much in just a few short years. Many health issues have spawned from poor diets with harmful ingredients. Many veterinarians and animal nutritionists have been working hard to create awareness and apply changes so our pets can live longer lives.

If you’re trying to make healthy dietary choices for your pup, you probably want all the information you can get on the subject. Let’s take a look at pet food options so you can pick what you feel is an ideal option for your dogs.

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Types of Dog Food

wet and dry food
Image Credit: Yuriy Golub, Shutterstock

There are tons of dog food textures, each with its lists of pros and cons. Let’s run down the list of these options so you can grasp what to expect in terms of moisture content, nutrition, and dental health.

1. Dry Dog Food

Dog behind table with bowl full of dry food
Image credit: alexei_tm, Shutterstock

Dry dog food has been around since 1941 when companies tried to create a product that has a stable shelf life, lasting much longer than open canned foods.

Dry dog food has since become a staple in the pet food industry. While many recipes have contained what we now know are harmful ingredients, several companies have begun improving food lines.

Initially, there were some pretty big problems with dry dog food using fillers and artificial ingredients. However, as time progresses, many healthier options line the shelves.

Pros
  • Kibble cleans teeth
  • Longer shelf life
  • Easy to store
Cons
  • Lacks moisture
  • Often contains filler ingredients

2. Wet Dog Food

dog food bowl
Image Credit: Pixabay

Wet dog food was actually the very first type of dog food on the market. It started in 1922 when the Chappel Brothers created a dog food diet from horse meat called Ken-L-Ration.

Originally, they used leftover horses from World War I, but eventually, they began breeding horses for dog food production.

Wet dog food has come a long way since then, as they now use meats like beef, chicken, turkey, fish, and duck. Some fancier selections also use more exotic protein sources like bison, venison, quail, and wild boar.

Though strides have been made in improving the quality of wet dog food, here are the quick details to consider.

Pros
  • High moisture content
  • Chunks of protein
  • Unopened cans store for years
Cons
  • Can contain fillers and preservatives
  • Goes bad quickly once opened
  • Can be expensive

3. Moist Dog Food

Moist dog food in a bowl
Image Credit: Louella938, Shutterstock

Moist dog food is not as common as some other options, but it is available online and in pet food stores. It is soft and easy for any dog to chew. It has a slightly reduced shelf-life compared to dry kibble, as it does contain moisture that will evaporate.

If your dog doesn’t eat all of their food in one sitting, it can only stay out for 4 hours before you put it away. This food is also sometimes higher in calories. So, if you do choose this type of dog food, make sure to measure the portions correctly to avoid weight gain.

Most moist dog food recipes contain lots of dyes and fillers, as they are mostly lower-grade foods. There are exceptions, of course. But always make sure the ingredient label contains healthy ingredients for your pup.

Pros
  • Adds a little moisture to the diet
  • Easier for some dogs to chew
Cons
  • High calorie
  • Higher chance of fillers
  • Reduced shelf-life
  • Must store leftovers after 4 hours

4. Raw Dog Food

raw dog food
Image Credit: Zontica, Shutterstock

Raw dog food is exactly what it sounds like—raw chunks of animal meat. The entire idea behind it is to give your dog a diet as close to its primal state as possible. Many dog food companies are hopping on board to give consumers raw food diets.

Raw options are also something you can make at home under the guidance of your veterinarian. If you have researched a solid recipe and your vet gave you the thumbs up, you can create some intensely healthy recipes for your dog without buying from a brand.

There are upsides and downfalls to each. Manufactured raw dog food has to be properly stored and prepared to be edible. So, there will be differences in packaging compared to other lines of dog food. With these types of foods, delivery service is almost a must, which adds additional fees.

It is already prepared so you don’t have to work hard to whip up the recipe on your own. It takes a lot of the guessing work out for you. However, with any raw diet, proper storage is vital, so the food doesn’t spoil.

Raw dog food diets are still relatively new in the dog food world, but the concept is to give your dog a high-protein, natural-based dog food to enhance their life. You can even use a raw food base as an enhancer for everyday dog food. It is an awesome, appetizing kick to spruce up their food bowl.

Pros
  • High-protein, all-natural
  • You’re in control of the ingredients
  • Can be used as a food enhancer
Cons
  • Spoils quickly
  • Must be precise and well-balanced
  • Can be time-consuming if you make yourself
  • Can get expensive

5. Homemade Dog Food

Home made pet dog or cat food
Image Credit: Jodie Johnson, Shutterstock

Lots of dog owners are jumping on the bandwagon to give their dogs a better diet. Homemade recipes are becoming more prevalent than ever as pet owners get their heads together. Social media is riddled with pet food options you can make from the comfort of your kitchen.

With so many dogs having allergies, it’s led to a revolution of pet parents looking for a better way. So, many owners comment that after switching to natural, homemade diets, their dog’s health conditions or symptoms improved.

Homemade recipes generally consist of a whole protein source, vegetables, fruits, and possible grains—depending on dietary restrictions.

Homemade dog food can be a little pricey or time-consuming to prepare. However, you can freeze bags in advance and thaw as needed. All recipes would have to be okayed by your veterinarian to make sure it meets all canine dietary requirements.

Homemade dog food can contain whatever ingredients your dog needs to be their healthiest. You can craft your very own formula they will love—though it can take trial and error, and some might not have the time.

Pros
  • Can make at home
  • Control every ingredient
  • Freeze to store
  • Easy-to-find recipes
Cons
  • Time-consuming preparation
  • Vet must approve recipes

6. Freeze-Dried Dog Food

freeze dried pet food
image credit: Anna Hoychuk, Shutterstock

Freeze-dried dog food is another form of a raw diet. Freeze-dried formulas have been completely dehydrated to remove any moisture. This way, the dog food can be stored as long as kibble without spoiling.

So, ultimately, freeze-dried dog food tries to take care of two areas: giving your dog a healthier selection while keeping longer. This type of dog food comes in both standalone diets and meal toppers. The concept is fairly new, so tons of products are still in the works but not in the market yet.

Something else that’s really cool about freeze-dried foods is that you can actually make certain treats or meals at home if you have the desire.

Pros
  • Long shelf-life
  • All-natural ingredients
  • Comes as a topper or as a main meal
  • Can make at home
Cons
  • Not as many recipe options
  • Can be a little expensive

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Dog Food Recipes

dog eating dog food
Image Credit: Mat Coulton, Pixabay

Who knew dog food could get so complicated? Once you pick your dog food’s base and texture, you must next decide on the specific recipe.

1. Standard

Standard dog food diets are those meant for everyday nutrition. While different food lines have various names for these types of recipes, they are generally the main diet choice. Standard recipes cover all of the bases of pet nutrition, met by the AAFCO standards.

These foods contain grain, a common protein source, and vitamins and minerals. Often, dogs with specific dietary requirements or health restrictions are not compatible with these formulas.


2. Grain-Free

Grain-free diets for canines are quite a controversial topic these days. While it first seemed like a good idea as a way to create a more natural diet, it actually had adverse effects on the hearts of many dogs. In fact, since grains were largely replaced with peas, grain-free recipes have become linked to heart disease.

However, some dogs still benefit from a grain-free diet if they have an actual grain or gluten allergy. Luckily, this is rare, but grain-free diets continue to expand. Hopefully, in the future, all issues with grain-free selections will even out and become less problematic for our furry pals.

labrador retriever eating dog food
Image: Jaromir Chalabala, Shutterstock

3. Limited Ingredient

Limited ingredient diets have fewer additives than normal dog food recipes. The aim is to create shorter lists with more natural ingredients to reduce potential allergens for sensitive dogs.


4. Organic

Organic dog food eliminates exposure to many harmful additives and chemicals. In recent years, much attention has been given to certain ingredients in manufactured foods—for pets and people alike. People are giving a second thought to what those they love put in their mouths.

In order for a dog food to be able to use the label “organic,” it has to be completely free of synthetic hormones, antibiotics, pesticides, and other unnatural chemicals. Since so many ingredients lead to bigger health issues, lots of owners start to treat, manage, or prevent issues related to poor diet.


5. Vegan

Vegan dog food is quite controversial, as dogs naturally need animal protein in their diet to thrive. However, that doesn’t stop advocates from formulating suitable recipes for canine companions. Many nutritionists have created recipes that cover all the basics of necessary canine nutrition.

Vegan and vegetarian dog foods are actually easier for dogs, as they are omnivores just like humans. You should always have approval from your veterinarian before switching your dog to a plant-based diet.

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Harmful Ingredients

dog check by vet_didesign021, Shutterstock
Image Credit: didesign021, Shutterstock

If you want to be watchful of potentially negative ingredients in pet food, here are a few categories to keep in mind.

1. Artificial Flavors & Preservatives

When you’re looking through the ingredients on a dog food label, look out for artificial flavors and dyes. These additives are not only unnecessary, but they can be very harmful to your dog.

Artificial flavors are made using synthetic chemicals. Preservatives These chemicals have been linked to health issues like allergies, diarrhea, vomiting, or food sensitivities.

Avoid:
  • BHA
  • BHT
  • Ethoxyquin
  • Red 40
  • Blue 2

2. Fillers

As pet companies come further, they’ve really started eliminating fillers from food lines. However, there are still several, especially those you find in most commercial department stores, that continue to use fillers.

Examples of fillers include:
  • Corn
  • Wheat
  • Soy

These fillers are usually genetically-modified, which is also unnatural. Over time, the consumption of filler-packed foods can cause obesity, allergies, and diabetes.


3. By-Products

By-products don’t necessarily sound so bad at first. They are composed of all the parts of an animal outside of the actual meat. Some examples include the liver, heart, lungs, kidneys, spleen, and skin.

While that isn’t necessarily unhealthy, they sometimes remove these parts from sick, dying, or already dead animals. It really isn’t a good thing for your pet to consume. Plus, the ambiguity only makes the contents all the more questionable.

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Picking the Right Dog Food

dog's paws beside his food
Image Credit: mattycoulton, Pixabay

Your list of criteria when you pick the type of dog food might differ drastically from another reader. It will all depend on your lifestyle, your dog’s breed, your dog’s overall health, and your budget. Here are some areas to consider.

1. Home Delivery Options

Many pet food companies deliver right to your door. Sites like Chewy even have auto-ship options to keep the food coming on a schedule so you never run out.

Fresh pet food lines also have personalized delivery services that come straight to your doorstep. Each package contains individualized foods for your dog.


2. Smart Ingredients

As we become more aware of our canine’s dietary needs, the more we can choose healthy recipes for them. Once you know some red flags on ingredient lists, you can avoid them altogether before purchasing.


3. Trendy Diets

Trendy diets are new recipes or lines that take a new spin on traditional diets. If you want to hop on board and try one out for the betterment of your dog’s health, speak with your vet beforehand.


4. Specialized Recipes

Dogs can develop allergies that can be recurring and problematic because of their main diet. Food trials can be difficult, especially when you don’t know the trigger. Specialized diets aim to prevent your dog from having any negative immune response.


5. Company Reputation

Obviously, one of the most important things about trusting a pet food is knowing something about the company. If you don’t plan to create your own recipes at home, thoroughly investigate the dog food company. Make sure they’ve had no recalls, see if there are any complaints that stand out.

If a company makes quality products and stands by them, it might build brand trust.

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Conclusion

No matter what you end up choosing, it should always be what’s best for your dog. Just like humans, dogs can have all kinds of special dietary circumstances that prevent them from eating certain ingredients or nourishing an aspect of health.

Just remember—if there are a bunch of ingredients you can’t pronounce on the back, it’s probably not the smartest idea to buy that food. We want our pups to stay with us as long as possible, so always consult with your vet before you make your final decision.


Featured Image Credit: dogboxstudio, Shutterstock

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